All-sports talk weaves its way into Web

OnAirSports.com hits `waves' in ground-floor bid for Internet audience

Media

May 17, 2000|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN SPORTS MEDIA CRITIC

On the surface, the Timonium studio of OnAirSports.com looks like one of a hundred all-sports radio stations across the country, albeit a bit smaller.

At any given time during the day, there's a guy wearing a headset talking sports on one side of a booth, with a producer manning the controls on the other side.

And the conversation, on one May morning, is right off the standard sports-talk menu, with host Mark Mussina talking about the Orioles, the previous night's NBA playoff action and the talents of B-movie actress Shannon Tweed.

Indeed, it's not until you leave the studio, get into your car and fiddle around with the radio dial to continue listening to the show that you realize that OnAirSports.com is not your standard all-sports talk station, because you can't find it on your radio.

Up and running since early April, OnAirSports.com can only be heard on a computer that has a sound card and the right sound provider."Things are evolving quickly in this business and I want to be ahead of the curve," said Gordon Boone, chief executive officer of OnAirSports.com.

While many conventional stations maintain Internet sites, which carry their programming to audiences beyond where their signals can carry, OnAirSports.com is one of roughly 360 Internet-only "radio" stations that stream audio directly to computers, bypassing the airwaves.

But while most of those stations send music, and the bigger sports sites (ESPN, CNN/SI, Fox) stream video and audio, OnAirSports.com may be the only all-sports Internet outlet in the country, according to Boone.

Before launching the site, he attended an Internet convention of similar providers and found he was the only one of his type.

And through the first few weeks, people are finding the site, which has drawn more than 320,000 hits through the first part of May, with over 15,600 distinct visitors during that time, with very little advertising.

Those numbers are dwarfed by the bigger, more established sites, of course, but they suggest that there are people who are willing to take a chance on an unproven commodity.

"It's a very different animal than radio and we're kind of looking at an audience that isn't the typical sports talk audience, more like the white-collar guy who sits in his office and has it on as background," said Mussina, the younger brother of the Orioles' pitching ace.

The most recognizable of the hosts, Mussina had previously worked in marketing for the Tufton Group, which represents the Orioles' Cal Ripken.

Boone's vision appears to be no less outlandish than his bravado. Already, he has declared a war of sorts on WBAL (1090 AM), calling OnAirSports.com "the station WBAL doesn't want you to know about."

At issue is the radio station's decision to pull promotional ads Boone bought to run on Opening Day.

Boone said he had hoped to get some exposure for OnAirSports.com through the ads, but found out the day after Opening Day that only one of them had run, because his content competes with WBAL's.

WBAL station manager Jeff Beauchamp declined comment on the matter, saying the issue was being discussed by lawyers for both sides.

OnAirSports.com has its genesis in the remains of what was WNST, Baltimore's first attempt at an all-sports broadcast station, which went off the air last summer.

Boone, a lacrosse player at Salisbury State in the late 1970s, did a lacrosse show for WNST and hosts a similar show on OnAirSports.com. He inquired about purchasing WNST, but determined that the price, believed to be about $1.5million, was too high. Instead, he decided to sell his litigation-support business and give the Internet a try.

The site currently carries audio ads, updated scores and national headlines, though Boone says he hopes to replace national stories in favor of local content. Indeed, high schools and colleges are encouraged to submit scores and stories to be posted on the site.

Boone's goals for the site are to line up investors, someday issue stock and to import the concept to other cities to create a network of similar outlets.

Boone and Mussina, the morning show host, are the only full-time employees to date. The cast of hosts, which includes such familiar locals as Spiro Morekas, Ken Weinman, Bob Haynie and Will "Swami" Sonderman, do receive nominal compensation.

The schedule is limited, with most of the day's lineup repeated in late-night and overnight periods.

"It's exciting to be a part of an exciting process and to get on the ground floor of something that could take off," said Mussina.

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